As the final moments of extra time ticked away at Wembley Stadium on Sunday during the FA Cup semifinal between Manchester United and Brighton & Hove Albion and penalty kicks seemed inevitable, most United fans probably had a sinking feeling that the match was already lost.
Those that didn’t were either delusional, relentlessly optimistic or lying.
After all, David de Gea is notorious for being terrible at stopping penalty kicks. He once went five years without stopping a penalty and the last time he got one in the FA Cup was 2016 against Romelu Lukaku, then of Everton. Most recently, he had a nightmare in the 2021 Europa League Final, failing to stop 11 kicks from the spot and then missing his attempt, handing the trophy to Villarreal.
And speaking of the Europa League, de Gea was coming off a horrendous, gaffe-filled outing against Sevilla in midweek in which he and Harry Maguire got the lions’ share of the blame for their team crashing out of the competition.
So how did he do on Sunday? Did he rise to the occasion or fold like a cheap suit?
For the most part, he was great. Per usual, he made several important saves in regulation to keep the match scoreless. After his problems passing it short against Sevilla, he mixed things up and employed more long-balls than usual under Erik ten Hag. It meant United didn’t have as much possession in the match, but against a side like Brighton that tends to have a lot of the ball but lacks a killer instinct in the box, it was a fine tactical move on ten Hag’s part.
And United prevailed 7-6 in the shootout (giving de Gea his first victory in a penalty shootout in his illustrious career), although his critics will point out that he failed to make a save during the entire shootout and argue that he was only bailed out because Solly March decided to do his best impersonation of Harry Kane at the World Cup.
But that only tells part of the story.
Goalkeepers need to be able to adapt and strategize during a shootout. If they can discern a pattern to the opposition’s shot selection — the way Edwin van der Sar did during the Champions League Final in 2008 — they can play mind games with shot takers and get them to miss or hesitate.
On Sunday, nearly every Brighton player chose to shoot to de Gea’s left. Why they felt the need to do this against a keeper known for not saving penalty shots is a head-scratcher. You’d think they would just keep it random instead of giving de Gea a chance by giving him a pattern to pick up on, right?
Then again, the one player Brighton player who went to de Gea’s right (Deniz Undav), nearly had his shot saved, so maybe they saw something.
Either way, the shootout progressed a lot like the one against Villarreal with every single player converting from the spot. Neither de Gea nor his counterpart, Brighton goalkeeper Robert Sanchez, came close on most of the shots, although Sanchez did get a hand on Marcel Sabitzer’s shot but was ultimately unable to keep out.
The shootout was also largely devoid of the kind of head games, theatrics and stalling techniques that we saw in the World Cup Final, where Emiliano Martinez talked a whole bunch of trash but was able to back enough of it up to emerge as a hero instead of a villain. Both keepers kept things professional, dutifully going back to their respective water bottles (and crib notes) after each kick. Casemiro, who volunteered to take the first kick for United, even looked like he was trying to get de Gea to be a little more animated on his line in hopes of distracting the opposing kickers.
But then, March stepped up for Brighton and things changed. First, Wout Weghorst, who had converted the previous penalty and has shown no qualms about mixing it up with other players, took it upon himself to approach March, kiss the ball in front of him as if he were putting a hex on it, and then hand it to the Brighton midfielder.
De Gea then stepped up to March and started scuffing up the penalty spot in a bit to put him off even more. Maybe he sensed March was nervous. Maybe he sensed Weghorst had unnerved him so he decided to finish the job. Or maybe he knew March, a left footer, was obviously going to kick it to the goalkeeper’s left like most of his teammates, and let him know that so he’d panic.
Either way, de Gea clearly knew what March was going to do and even cheated to his left a bit before the kick. It’s a dangerous game, since March could have easily just gone right. But, maybe de Gea sensed March lacked the confidence and ability to change his strategy on the fly like that. After all, there’s probably a reason why March didn’t volunteer to take one of the first five kicks.
Sure enough, March missed and then Victor Lindelöf sealed the win with a smart, well-struck penalty past Sanchez. Coincidentally, the last time United won a shootout, it was in 2019 against Sanchez and his then-team, Rochdale.
Regardless of how you feel about de Gea’s long term suitability for ten Hag and whether or not he deserves a new deal, you have to salute him for bouncing back after his nightmare in Seville on Thursday. The knives all came out for him after his poor showing, with some even suggesting that this could cost him his long-rumored contact extension.
Sure, he probably has assurances that the deal is more or less done. Plus, he understands that United’s ongoing ownership uncertainty probably means the team won’t have enough money to get a new keeper on top of their main priorities of landing a world class striker as well as reinforcements in midfield and defense. But another poor performance would have made the calls for him to be let go in the offseason even louder. And who knows? If Qatar takes over tomorrow, then maybe ten Hag wouldn’t blink at the chance of landing Diogo Costa, Giorgi Mamardashvili, Mike Maignan or someone else.
So, here’s hoping that de Gea can go on a run and keep playing at a high level for the rest of the season. And if he can make it two-in-a-row and beat Man City in a shootout in the FA Cup Final, then maybe he’ll shut his critics up once and for all.